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Is Syria’s Gregarious New Ambassador the Face of a Kinder, Gentler Damascus?

June 9, 2004
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Syria’s ambassador to Washington says he wants peace with Israel because it’s in Syria’s interest, the region’s interest and — “this might be bizarre for me to say,” he admits — Israel’s interest. Gregarious, grinning and looking younger than his 44 years, Imad Moustapha is the face of a new Syrian charm offensive launched during a low point in Syria’s relations with the West, and the United States in particular.

The Bush administration has made ending Middle Eastern regimes like the one in Syria — a hereditary autocracy and state sponsor of terrorism — a foreign policy priority.

Just before last year’s U.S. invasion of Iraq, Syrian President Bashar Assad made possibly his worst gamble since ascending to power in 2000, reversing his late father’s policy of giving Saddam Hussein the cold shoulder.

Not long after U.S. troops swept into Baghdad, administration officials hinted that Damascus could be next, though they later! backed off those threats. Last month, President Bush slapped Syria with trade sanctions because of its failure to comply with U.S. demands to crack down on terrorism, end its weapons programs and clear out of Lebanon.

Syria expected some relief from Europe, but European nations also have reprimanded the Assad regime for flouting the West. The European Union is considering extending free-trade status to Syria, but first wants guarantees that Syria won’t try to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Against that background, Assad’s appointment this year of Moustapha, a computer science professor noted for his Western outlook, was no coincidence — nor were Moustapha’s gestures toward Syrian Jews.

Within weeks of Bush’s imposition of the sanctions, Moustapha took an official U.S. Jewish delegation to Syria. After the visit — which Moustapha says succeeded beyond his wildest dreams — he seems to have a newfound appreciation for the Jewish people.

“We are proud in ! our history that when the Jews were persecuted in Spain they came to S yria,” Moustapha says in an interview with JTA at the Syrian Embassy in Washington. “This is something we pride ourselves on.”

Moustapha acknowledges the link between his outreach to Jews and Syria’s desire to restart peace talks with Israel.

“Before marriage, you go into courtship,” he says — though he cautions that the Syrian public is not ready for gestures to Israel itself.

Moustapha is articulate in English and works hard at maintaining an appearance of openness. Striding around the embassy in shirtsleeves, he says there also are other, historical reasons to reconcile with Syria’s Jews.

Moustapha describes the recent, affectionate receptions in Damascus and Aleppo for the 15 visiting Jewish men. The Jews represented the tight-knit Syrian-American Jewish communities in Brooklyn, Long Island and New Jersey.

Moustapha says tears welled up in his eyes when he observed delegation members, some of whom were born in the United States and never had visited Syr! ia, weeping at the gravesite of a Jewish wise man.

Such scenes helped convince him that peace between Israel and Syria is inevitable, Moustapha says.

“The overwhelming majority of, I believe in my heart, Syrians and Israelis want to have a peace accord,” he says.

That message was echoed recently by Moustapha’s bosses.

In December, Assad told the New York Times he was ready to pick up negotiations with Israel where his father unceremoniously cut them off in early 2000. Syria’s foreign minister, Farouk Sharaa, repeated that message this weekend in an interview with a Kuwaiti newspaper.

Moustapha goes even further, saying the quasi-peace Syria sought then is no longer applicable. In 2000, Syria resisted Israeli demands that peace include open borders and diplomatic exchanges.

“The moment you sign a peace treaty,” he says, it ought to mean “end of the war, exchange of diplomatic relations, opening of borders, everything.”

Moustapha dismisses the Syria Ac! countability Act, which the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed last y ear and which led to Bush’s sanctions, as the product of a cabal of “neoconservatives and Israel’s war camp.”

“What would they gain by creating yet another enemy for the United States?” he says. “I don’t understand the ideology.”

A moment later, he attributes the act to the fanaticism of ideologues.

“They believe the United States thrives when there are enemies. First it was the Communist bloc, then it was Osama bin Laden, then it was Iraq. Now they are dreaming of portraying Syria as their enemy,” he says. “But we are not their enemy. We will not give them the opportunity to portray us as their enemy, because we are not their enemy.”

Israeli and U.S. officials dismiss such rhetoric.

“We think the Syrians have very serious problems, not just with Israel, not just with the United States, but with much of the global community,” said Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington. “In a world that has condemned terrorism, Syria hosts a whole ser! ies of terrorist groups in Damascus.”

Moustapha insists that Syria is meeting the provisions of the Syria Accountability Act and has shut down terrorist offices in Damascus.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the lead sponsor of the act, said Syria has had years to meet its provisions.

“Suddenly we have this Syrian charm offensive,” Engel told JTA. “These sanctions don’t need to be on forever. I would love it if Syria wants peace with Israel and a positive relationship with the United States. But we need more than words.”

But Moustapha cites last year’s murderous attack on a synagogue in Istanbul as an example of Damascus’ changed ways: The alleged attackers fled to Syria, where they were promptly arrested and handed over to Turkish authorities. The same would be true of any attack in Israel or the Palestinian territories, he says.

“If you have doubts about us, or you think we are bluffing, call the bluff, come to us,” he says. In Congress, he says, “I am the only dipl! omat from a ‘rogue state.’ “

A U.S. official scoffed at the asserti on that the United States does not present Syria with proof of terrorist activity.

“Putting down a few shutters and cutting a couple of phone lines are cosmetic improvements,” the official told JTA. “That’s just using words to avoid taking responsibility.”

The official did note one area of improvement, however: Syria is clamping down on its border with Iraq to prevent foreigners from joining anti-U.S. insurgents there, the official said.

One major impediment to Israeli-Syrian negotiations is the Syrian demand that talks resume where they last left off in 2000. Then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak was prepared to give up all of the Golan Heights, but his refusal to hand over a sliver of territory that Syria conquered in 1948 and Israel recaptured in 1967 led Assad’s father to end the talks — and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government is by no means prepared to go that far.

Still, Israeli and U.S. officials are taking note of the Syrian overtures and of Moustapha in! particular.

He uses terms once unthinkable for a Syrian official: He speaks of the “tragic events” of 20 years ago to describe the Syrian government’s slaughter of at least 10,000 civilians in Hama during clashes with the Muslim Brotherhood. Not long ago, it was Syrian government policy to deny that any such killing took place.

Moustapha also expresses regrets about past treatment of the Syrian Jewish community, though he notes that it was not the only community singled out under Hafez Assad’s regime.

“Yes, at one point we tried to prevent them from emigrating to Israel, but we have changed,” he says.

Now, he says, he has established warm relations with the insular U.S.-Syrian Jewish community, even attending its weddings.

“It’s not like this is how we historically treated them,” he said. “At one point we said ‘OK, you can leave. Just promise us not to go to Israel.’ “

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